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June 8, 2020 9:15 am

The Passion and Modern-Day Christian Antisemitism

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avatar by Jeremy Rosen


A general view shows the structure housing the purported tomb of Jesus in the burial place, known as the Edicule, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, during a prayer session amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Jerusalem’s Old City March 22, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Ammar Awad / File.

What does primitive medieval antisemitism have to do with us here and now?

The Passion Play, or Easter pageant, is a traditional Christian drama about the trial, suffering, and death of Jesus that became an important feature of medieval Christian life. Historically, these plays encouraged antisemitism by blaming Jews (collectively) for everything. They often led to pogroms and violence. Although it is argued that, nowadays, these pageants are less religious and more cultural, many of them still perpetuate antisemitic stereotypes.

Hitler’s favorite was the Oberammergau Passion play, which was first performed in the village of that name in 1634. The villagers made a vow to repeat it every 10 years if God spared them from the effects of the plague which was sweeping the region. Today, half a million people view the play during each decennial season. The play was, and remains, dominated by classic anti-Jewish tropes. Over the years, several Jewish organizations have campaigned to remove, or at least modify, the negativity of the anti-Jewish content in this play.

The proclamation of Nostra Aetate in 1965, which positively transformed Catholic attitudes towards Jews and Judaism, put the unreformed play at odds with the official Catholic Church. Although the Church no longer gave it their approval, the town was not prepared to make any changes.

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Eventually, modifications to the script, staging, and costumes began in 1990 when Christian Stückl and Otto Huber took over as the directors of the play. Even so, it reportedly took them until 2010 to remove the most serious antisemitic themes.

There are many other such dramas throughout the European Christian world in which Jews are portrayed in the most negative and diabolical way. We won’t even begin to catalog the amount of religious hatred that is directed against Jews in much of Muslim society.

In this month’s New York Review of Books, Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt writes about another passion drama in Spain, the Misteri D’Elx, that he attended recently. The two-act play is performed annually in the Basilica de Santa María in the city of Elche in Valencia, Spain.

Greenblatt was enraptured by the beauty, sounds, and theatricality of the whole event, as well as the passionate involvement of the whole city. The performance starts in the streets and moves into the Basilica. A young boy, accompanied by beautiful angels, sings to the Virgin Mary, who has been told of her imminent death. The virgin asks the apostles to gather around as she passes away. She disappears below the stage, and a resurrected image replaces her.

In the late afternoon of the next day, the crowds return to the Basilica. The next act involves a group of Jews led by a gaunt elderly man with long braided hair and a beard. The Jews are wearing prayer shawls and skullcaps. They rush into the church and attempt to grab the virgin’s corpse. The apostles valiantly try to repel the malevolent onslaught, but the ferocity of the Jews, stirred up by their rabbi, is overwhelming. Suddenly, there is a miracle. The rabbis’ hands are paralyzed. The Jews fall to their knees, convert, and are baptized.

Afterwards, Greenblatt’s Christian host asked him what he thought of the performance. Greenblatt replied by asking him to imagine how he, as a Christian, would feel if he were in Baghdad on a visit and was taken to watch a powerfully moving ancient performance of a ritual drama that celebrated the miraculous awakening of a pack of primitive Christians to the luminous truth of Islam? Would that make him feel uncomfortable?

Much of Greenblatt’s article looks at other similar Passion plays and their underlying themes of antisemitism.

Sadly, the hatred and prejudice that underlies this form of art are very much alive. They are being perpetuated in many subtle and unsubtle ways before our very eyes in the cultural antagonism that comes from the right and the left toward Jews (and Judaism). This antagonism has become endemic around much of the so-called civilized world. In the current protests that are sweeping the United States, there have been many placards, graffiti, signs, and acts that demonize Jews and have nothing to do with the current issues. The attack on the Jewish community in Fairfax Los Angeles by demonstrators has been largely ignored by mainstream rabbis and leaders who are more concerned with not being labeled anti-progressive.

According to Wikipedia, in 2001, UNESCO declared the Misteri D’Elx  “one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” This declaration contained no suggestion of any possible modifications. So I guess UNESCO considers antisemitism an intangible part of culture nowadays. If this is culture, no wonder there are many Jews who are suspicious of it.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He also studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Cambridge University and went on to earn his PhD in philosophy. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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